The 2014 Preakness Stakes
Two weeks after becoming the fourth California bred horse to win the Kentucky Derby, California Chrome was at Pimlico Race Course ready to begin phase two of his Triple Crown pursuit. Even before his Derby triumph, the chestnut's popularity was growing, and the result in Louisville raised it to a greater level. Millions watched the Run for the Roses, and now Chrome was known to the mainstream audience and not just racing fans.
His story of being a horse with an ordinary pedigree to classic winner made Chrome easy to root for, and the fact he was born in the Golden State have him that extra amount of respect and attention from California racing fans.
In that regard, Chrome was a lot like Snow Chief, the fellow Cal-bred who had won the Preakness twenty-eight years before. On paper, Snow Chief's pedigree did not foretell the heights of which he would reach, but he went on to a superb career that made him one of the most successful California bred horses of all time. That included multiple Grade I wins in the Florida Derby, Santa Anita Derby, and the Preakness Stakes. Chrome also had the Santa Anita Derby under his belt along with the recent Derby score, so each one knew how to perform on the big stage.
Both horses came from smaller operations, and their trainers were longtime veterans of the game who were well known in California despite not having superbarns. Legendary California trainer Mel Stute guided Snow Chief throughout his career, while Chrome was under the care of Art Sherman, who found himself involved with another talented and popular California bred horse after being the exercise rider of Swaps nearly sixty years earlier. Whereas Swaps's trainer, Mesh Tenney, did not go for the Triple Crown with Swaps (who did not compete in the Preakness or Belmont Stakes), Sherman was in the running. For that to continue, however, Chrome had to beat his fellow horses in the 1 3/16 mile Preakness Stakes.
Interestingly, Snow Chief had been the last California bred horse to win the Preakness, so Chrome had a chance to break that streak. Nine rivals joined him in the starting gate, and the field was largely comprised of new faces for Chrome. The only other horses being wheeled back after the Derby were General A Rod and Ride On Curlin. The public did not see anything other than a confirmed ticket for Belmont Park, with Chrome sent away as the odds-on favorite.
The start of the race went perfectly for him. No one was ahead, so Chrome and Victor Espinoza cleared most of the field in the opening seconds after leaving post position three. Pablo Del Monte, who began from the nine hole, was hustled to the lead on a fast track, so Chrome settled in second during the initial run in the stretch. The filly Ria Antonia joined Pablo Del Monte on the outside, and the two showed the way around the first turn. Chrome was in a good position, tracking both of them closely in third on the outside. The colt looked good at that stage of the 139th Preakness, moving with aplomb as the leaders battled up front.
Pablo Del Monte set fractions of 23.56 and 46.85 as he moved down the backstretch. Ria Antonia stayed right with him in second. Chrome was the head of the second group in third, and General A Rod and Social Inclusion were just behind on the inside and outside, but neither were battling the Triple Crown hopeful. At the start of the far turn, Chrome began his run, moving past Ria Antonia while Social Inclusion followed. Pablo Del Monte was timed in 1:11.06 for three quarters of a mile, but his lead disappeared. Chrome caught him, and led the Preakness at the apex of the far turn. Social Inclusion tried to make a race of it, but once they straightened in the stretch, the underdog from California was the clear pacesetter.
With a furlong left in the Triple Crown's second jewel, Ride On Curlin made his bid. He passed Social Inclusion, his sights set on Chrome. The chestnut horse, who was more towards the inside part of Pimlico's main track, continued on, not looking like he was going to falter. Ride On Curlin would not give up, and he tried to catch his rival, but Chrome had too much in the tank.
He reached the wire to the cheers of a jubiliant Pimlico crowd. California Chrome, the race favorite, the people's favorite, had done it. He became the first California bred horse to win the Preakness since Snow Chief in 1986, and became the only California bred to win both the Preakness and the Kentucky Derby. Now, he was going to Belmont to attempt what only eleven horses before him had accomplished. Regardless if he completed the sweep, Chrome had already won two-thirds of the Triple Crown, which is something a lot of horses have not done over the years. Just on that fact alone, Chrome was already a legend of California racing.
Victor Espinoza had another chance to win the Triple Crown, which had eluded him in 2002 with War Emblem. Art Sherman, a man who had been involved with California racing for years, saw an opportunity to achieve racing's greatest prize after seeing Swaps capture the Kentucky Derby in 1955. He now had his Derby winner, and potentially a Triple Crown winner, which made for a terrific story involving a trainer who had never reached the heights of the sport. For Chrome's owners and breeders, Steve Coburn and Perry Martin, they were enjoying their own underdog story. Their operation was small, but here they were, just weeks away from what was the biggest day of their racing careers.
It was a big day for Chrome, for California's fans, and the state's racing and breeding programs. The colt's win in the Preakness symbolized how a dream, no matter how far away it might look, can be realized.
An underdog can win, and the odds can be overcome.